The British Are Coming — Watch Dogs Legion hands-on preview

Watch Dogs has been an iterative adventure. The first game was filled with unique promise, tackling the open world as a hackable playground. The narrative revolved around revenge and the unveiling of a massive nemesis in ctOS. In the first game, it was controlling the city of Chicago’s infrastructure, responsible for managing everything from water to cell towers. Despite the protagonist Aiden Pierce’s best efforts, the Chicago test bed was considered a success. The second game opened the world up even wider. ctOS 2.0 was deployed by the Blume Corporation, and protagonist Marcus Holloway teamed up with hacker group DedSec to try to stop it from spreading beyond San Francisco. Like Aiden, even when he succeeded, he ultimately failed. Maybe what the world needs isn’t another protagonist?

Or maybe it just needs a hell of a lot more of ‘em?

Watch Dogs: Legion takes place in London. The Blume corporation looked at all of the cameras already present in the UK and thought it’d be fertile ground to expand their ctOS program. By any measure, they’ve succeeded, resulting in a vast expansion of the surveillance state. The UK has banded all of their intelligence gathering agencies together, dubbing them S.I.R.S., or Signals Intelligence Response Service. For our own protection they’ve torn down individual freedoms. To keep us safe they watch our every move. If we have nothing to hide, there’s nothing to fear…right?

As an aside, when Far Cry 5 was being developed we asked if that game was going to tackle the politics laid bare by that game’s setting and protagonist. They assured us that it wasn’t going to be “all that political”. They seemed to have taken a hard left turn on this one. London’s police state, her protesters, and the resistance movement in the streets echo some of the current goings-on in the real world. Whether intentional or not, this game is going to make a statement as London has rushed right past “safety” and straight into failed facist state territory. With only three hours at the helm it’s hard to say how deep they’ll go into this narrative, but I’m hopeful that they’ll embrace the full dystopian nightmare scenario. Shades of Brexit and the potential repercussions abound in Legion.

The hands-on demo I got to play starts with a very James Bond-esque MI5 agent named Dalton who has uncovered a plot to blow up Parliament. Before long he discovers that this is all a setup, and the plan is to pin the attack on DedSec in an effort to further expand the surveillance state. The group behind the failed attack is named Zero-Day, but what is their objective with these attacks on London? We’ll need a few friends to find out.

To uncover Zero-Day (or any of the other factions in the game), you’ll have to recruit. While you could peek into the window of a person’s life in the first two games, in Legion you can smash that window open and practically crawl inside. Nearly everyone in London can be recruited, but not everyone is ready to join an anarchistic hacker group. That’s best illustrated by walking you through a few of the missions I played during the three hour unfettered access I’ve had with the game.

After the brief mission in Parliament, my sarcastic AI Bagley guided me to a distress signal that had been pinging DedSec relentlessly to gain our attention. Headed to a Stargoer Coffee shop, I sat down and waited to meet the contact, but ended up being slipped a cell phone instead. Pulling on this thread would lead me to a construction site that would quickly turn into a rescue mission. I made my way there to assess the situation.

I could easily have picked my spy and used his watch to disable the nearby surveillance, shooting my way in. My hacker would be able to tackle the bulk of the mission without ever setting foot in the construction yard, only heading in when the bad guys are all disabled. I could also have used the soccer hooligan that I picked up in a dive bar to just head in loud and proud, punching his way to my objective. The best tool for the job is sometimes the bright orange one. Donning my vest, I sent in my wrench-wielding construction worker to casually walk down the stairs, unlock the door, and escort out my rescue target without so much as a peep. I decided to see what other ways I could run this mission, so I hacked a nearby construction drone to fly over to me. With it hovering just above the ground, I climbed aboard and used the hacked cargo lifter to simply fly me directly to the objective, set down, and completed my mission. A wider variety of recruits means more ways to play.

I didn’t get to fully explore it, but one of my crew members got hurt while I was on mission. I don’t know what they were up to as I wasn’t actively controlling them at the time, but they somehow ended up incapacitated. The game informed me that if I recruited a nurse or doctor, he would heal faster. Similarly, if I recruited a lawyer, folks who ended up in the slammer would be released more quickly. Each person I recruited had their own unique powers, skills, and tools. My spy had a supercar, a suppressed pistol, and generally talked like Bond and moved like Wick. My construction worker was a bit more of a brute, smacking people in the head with a pipe wrench. I recruited a protester as well. He was already well-known by the authorities, and lacked any other discernible skills. What, did you expect every person to be a superhero?

I got to play through three main missions for Watch Dogs: Legion. One was putting me up against the private security company Albion. Albion has been charged by the government to enforce this new police state, allowing them to hole up in the Tower of London and operate with impunity. Well, my job in this mission was to infiltrate the White Tower and see just how they planned to do that. The best person for the job would be an Albion security guard, but they aren’t exactly aligned with the DedSec message. I’d need another angle.

The good news is that Albion soldiers are everywhere, so it didn’t take me long to find someone to recruit. Using my phone I tagged him as a potential addition to the DedSec team. My build already had the “deep dive” power unlocked, so I was able to dig deeper than the surface of what I found in his phone. I could see that he picked up coffee at 8am on the way to the office, stopped to pick up his dry cleaning, and other mundane activities that could lead me to his location. I could also see that he has spent his spare time hacking into the National Health Service. Now that’s interesting! I also quickly discovered that he has been hacking the organ registry to help his brother. A noble cause for him, but leverage for me. To sway him to the cause I’d need to help him with that registry. Some people have a noble heart, and others just need a favor — either way creates advantage and opportunity for you and your team. A quick mission later, and he was on team DedSec, ready to drop in on his Albion masters for our cause.

Like the construction mission, I was able to simply stroll into the ultra-secure Tower of London by blending in and wearing my official Albion uniform. As long as I went slow and didn’t let guards get too close, I was able to essentially stroll right in. Having the right person for the job is the name of the game in Watch Dogs: Legion.

This is a Watch Dogs game, so you’ll be spending a good portion of time hacking into things. During one mission I had to break into a hacker’s riverside apartment. As you’ll see below, the front door is trapped and well defended, so we’d need to disarm the place before we strolled in. I could hack the window washing scaffolds outside to create a path to the roof, or I could simply hack a construction drone and sky-surf my way there. Opting for the latter, I found the ctOS master control for this block and hacked it. Penetrating his apartment cameras I found a shotgun leveled at the door for whomever unfortunately opened it, but a series of explosives also lay in wait. Leaping around his apartment with cameras, I was able to turn the electrical “pipes” to eventually disarm all of the explosives, save the shotgun, and gain physical access to this desktop computer. While you are free to hack people’s phones to distract them, take control of vehicles on the go, raise and lower bollards, and more, it’s these hacking puzzles that seem to be the highlight. I’m looking forward to finding the new stuff that Ubisoft doesn’t want to spoil.

Not unlike Ubisoft’s representation of Chicago or San Francisco, London is a landmark haven. Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, Parliament, the Natural History Museum, the London Eye — it’s all here. The game was running on an RTX-enabled card, so I got to see all of it in its neon-soaked glory with real-time lighting. It’s a visual step up from their other open-world titles, and you’ll have just as much fun taking selfies in front of famous places as you did in the last two titles.

Watch Dogs: Legion has a lot in common with its predecessors, hitting on a lot of the same beats of hacking, distracting, and stealth. Since you won’t be progressing with a single protagonist you’ll unlock these via collectibles that you’ll find in the environment. Unlocking a new weapon may cost 5 of these points, whereas others cost 10 or 15, based on their overall usefulness. These can also be upgraded three times once unlocked. Not everyone can use everything, so you’ll likely go deeper on some characters than others, but it’s a good way to allow for progression when not attached to a single protagonist.

Drones have always been a big part of Watch Dogs, and Legion is no exception. A new spider drone can cloak itself to get into places unseen, but can also leap up onto the face of an unsuspecting victim, shocking them into unconsciousness. Police drones are armed, so they can offer a more lethal option when hijacked, or you can hack delivery drones to drop their precious cargo for a bit of cash. I have to admit, I spent a lot of time riding around on drones during my hands-on time. They are slow, but soaring above the fight gave me near immunity to the fracas below.

Closing out my three hour session, I can’t help but feel like the main thrust of the game is also a potential pitfall. I didn’t have enough time to really sink my teeth into the main storyline, but the interchangeable nature of the protagonist army I had built left me wondering how it’d fare on a 30+ hour open world game. Permanent death for recruits instead of simply reloading a save does up the stakes, as would having them be put in the slammer, but finding another person with that skill set isn’t overly difficult either. There are some characters that have a green circle indicator that designates them as someone you might want to recruit as they’ll have additional skills and tools beyond the rank and file. I’m hoping that Ubisoft Toronto can fill each character with life, letting me recruit an awesome team of hackers and hitmen. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and with the team that brought us the magnificent Far Cry 5 at the helm, I have high hopes.

Watch Dogs Legion is coming to Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Stadia, and PC on October 29th, 2020.

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